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America Needs a Centrist Party Now More Than Ever. Here’s How to Make It Happen.

An excerpt from The Centrist Manifesto by Charles Wheelan


The Republicans and the Democrats are institutionally entrenched. Americans have their minds wrapped around a two-party system. It is hard to get people to envision something different — despite the fact that there have been tectonic changes in the American political parties at many different junctures in our history. Building a new political party from scratch feels daunting and naïve.

But look at Google, or Amazon, or the iPhone. Americans are brilliant innovators — in the private sector. We worship entrepreneurs. We are constantly looking for ways to do everything better. So why would we tolerate two outdated political parties stuck in a broken system, decade after decade?

What we are talking about here is political innovation. We are offering a political party that would be better for many American voters than the choices they have now. A lot better.

The quirky nature of the American federal system makes all of this possible. The Centrist strategy begins by capturing a handful of U.S. Senate seats, presumably in New England, the Midwest, or any number of swing states. Angus King was elected to the Senate from Maine in 2012 as a moderate independent. Consider him Centrist number one. Senator King will caucus with the Democrats, but he has stated that he hopes to be a bipartisan bridge builder. We need to give Angus some more Centrist buddies in the Senate.

The 115th United States Senate. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Once the Centrists control four or five U.S. Senate seats, the party will hold the swing votes necessary for either the Republicans or the Democrats (including the president) to do anything.[1] The Centrists would be the gatekeepers for the entire federal government. But unlike the Tea Party extremists, or the obstructionist parties that hold their governments hostage in parliamentary systems elsewhere in the world, the Centrist Party would not be making demands that are out of sync with mainstream American public opinion. The Centrists would be a small, disproportionately powerful bloc demanding what most Americans are asking for. The Centrist Party could use its fulcrum of power in the U.S. Senate to force Republicans and Democrats to come to sensible compromises on important issues.

Why would we tolerate two outdated political parties stuck in a broken system, decade after decade?

To recap: 1) Centrist candidates need to win only 34 percent of the vote in three or four more U.S. Senate races (if we count Angus King as number one). 2) If the Centrists can deny either party a majority in the U.S. Senate, then the Centrist Party would hold the swing votes necessary to get anything done. 3) Having exploited this quirk in the American structure, the Centrists can steer the country in a sane, pragmatic direction that promotes long-term strength, security, and prosperity. This plan is entirely feasible, particularly if young, pragmatic leaders from around the country are willing to get behind it.

Still, let’s dispense with the skeptics. Yes, the American political system has historically been hostile to third parties. Any serious political observer knows that. We have had many third-party presidential candidates, from Teddy Roosevelt of the Bull Moose Party to Ralph Nader of the Green Party. They don’t win. And to the extent that they change the political landscape, it is often in ways that distort voters’ preferences. Ralph Nader arguably made George W. Bush president in 2000 by taking votes away from Al Gore in Florida. That’s hardly what Nader supporters could have hoped for.

The Centrists can steer the country in a sane, pragmatic direction that promotes long-term strength, security, and prosperity.

Even if a third-party presidential candidate were to catch fire with voters — perhaps even winning a plurality of votes cast — the Electoral College is more hostile still. The outcome of a close presidential race would be decided by the House of Representatives. Since no third party is likely to have a majority of votes in the house, the presidential bid would end there. Americans like to focus their political attention on the White house, but the presidency is a dead end in terms of transforming the current political landscape.

The House of Representatives is not much better. Both the Democrats and the Republicans can and would use their redistricting power to draw congressional districts that squelch any incipient Centrist movement. So forget the House of Representatives too.

Americans like to focus their political attention on the White house, but the presidency is a dead end in terms of transforming the current political landscape.

The Centrist strategy has to be built around the U.S. Senate. Imagine a Senate that has forty-seven Republicans, forty-nine Democrats, and four Centrists. As noted earlier, neither party can do anything in this scenario without the cooperation of the Centrists. And nothing can happen in the federal government without the Senate. This is a quirk in the American system that has never been exploited. A third party with a handful of seats in the Senate would essentially run the country.

Our Centrist Nation

Electing four Centrist senators would not be fabulously difficult. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can gerrymander a Senate race. The state is the “district,” and everyone in the state can vote. There are plenty of states that consistently elect Democrats and Republicans to state- wide office, making a Centrist candidate who combines the best of each party a very attractive candidate.

Any state in New England could elect a Centrist senator (or another Centrist, if we consider Angus King the first). New England used to be the home of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, back before moderate Republicans were put on the endangered species list. Those politicians and the voters who supported that wing of the party would now be most comfortable as Centrists.

In Maine, Angus King replaced Olympia Snowe, the moderate Republican who served three terms in the Senate before leaving in exasperation over the growing partisanship. In a reformed system, Olympia Snowe might have been a Centrist. So might her fellow senator from Maine, Susan Collins, who also has a reputation for joining with Democrats to find common ground.

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Lincoln Chafee was a moderate Republican senator from Rhode Island until he became so fed up with the party that he quit and became an independent. Rhode Island voters then elected him governor.

There are twelve potential Centrist Senate seats just in New England.

The Midwest states also tend to elect both Republicans and Democrats. My former home state of Illinois is represented in the Senate by Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican. One curious feature of Illinois politics is that the last two governors have gone to jail. The good news for the Centrists is that one was a Republican and the other was a Democrat. Illinois could easily send a Centrist to prison, or to the Senate. Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio all have the same tendency to elect both Republican and Democrats.

The Midwest: at least another ten potential Senate seats. Then there are the states that have emerged as “swing states” in recent presidential elections: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, Colorado. By definition, a swing state has a large contingent of voters who might vote for a Republican or for a Democrat in any given year. The right candidate in any of those swing states could win as a Centrist.

Swing states: another ten potential Senate seats. Plus California and a few other states that vote consistently Republican or Democrat in the presidential election but still occasionally elect a governor or senator from the other party (e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Republican governor in California and Brian Schweitzer as a Democratic governor in Montana).

The swing states.

None of this should be shocking; remember, the largest and fastest-growing bloc of voters are those who do not identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans. These nonaligned voters are tipping elections one way or the other. A Centrist candidate running statewide is likely to offer what this broad spectrum of the electorate is looking for. But it is even better than that. A Centrist candidate does not have to talk crazy during the primary. He or she can address important issues in a sensible way from the very beginning of the election. Even if multiple Centrist candidates were competing for the nomination, they would all be seeking support in the political middle, not on the tails.

A handful of Centrists can have two enormous positive impacts in terms of breaking the current Washington gridlock. First and most obvious, these Centrist senators will be legislative power brokers. To be politically feasible, any piece of legislation would have to appeal to the political middle that the Centrists represent. The Republicans would have to adapt their proposals to pick up Centrist votes, as would the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Centrist Party has the potential to be the intellectual home for sensible proposals on a broad range of issues. Just as the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission proposed a series of fiscal suggestions that were widely embraced by policy experts, the Centrist Party could be a repository of similar thinking on other issues — a permanent Simpson-Bowles process. Since any proposal is a nonstarter without Centrist support, the logical question would become, “What’s the Centrist position on this?” The Centrist Party should have an arsenal of good answers to that question. In an earlier era, this is what bipartisan groups of Republicans and Democrats used to do. The Centrist Party would become an institutional fix for the breakdown of bipartisanship.

To succeed at all this, the Centrist Party must bring national money and organization to bear on the Senate races where there is the most hope of winning. The first step is to pick the particular states where Centrist candidates will do well in a particular election. There may be an open seat, or an attractive Centrist candidate, or a high-profile Republican or Democrat willing to defect to the Centrist Party. Step one of the national strategy is to identify those most promising races and candidates.

None of this should be shocking; remember, the largest and fastest-growing bloc of voters are those who do not identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans.

Step two is to mobilize the nation’s frustrated moderates behind the Centrist candidates in those targeted races. The key to making that happen — to getting on the ballot and running a solid, well-financed candidate — is putting fifty states’ worth of money and organizational muscle behind those handpicked Senate races. Any Centrist candidate is going to face formidable Republican and Democratic organizations. The two parties are going to fight not only to win the seat, but to nip the potent Centrist challenge in the bud.

To counter that, imagine harnessing deep pockets across the country — not the usual partisan types, but the pragmatic civic leaders who are deeply worried about our nation’s problems and Washington’s inability to deal with them. Recent changes in campaign finance laws make it extremely easy to direct national resources to statewide races. Ironically, this broken feature of the current electoral system can be turned to the Centrists’ advantage (until we get it fixed). A Centrist super PAC (political action committee) can drop tens of millions of dollars collected around the country into a Senate race in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Illinois, or anywhere else that augurs well for a pathbreaking Centrist candidate.

Recent changes in campaign finance laws make it extremely easy to direct national resources to statewide races.

The first few Senate elections will be expensive, brutal slogs. Still, a national Centrist Party, mobilizing an entire country of moderate voters fed up with the current gridlock, can beat back the stale political status quo. In the long run, Centrist success will breed additional success in two important ways.

First, the Centrist momentum will feed on itself. The Centrist Party will attract independent voters and the most pragmatic, moderate voters from each of the two traditional parties. As that happens, both the Democrats and the Republicans will drift farther left and right, respectively. Each party will be more radical than it was before the creation of the Centrist Party.

As the Republicans move right and the Democrats move left, some of the moderates remaining in each party will feel less comfortable. This will induce even more defections to the Centrists, again leaving the Democrats and Republicans more radical than before. And so on, and so on, and so on. The likely equilibrium is a three-party system in which the Republicans and Democrats are left with their hard-core “base” while the Centrist Party comprises all the voters in between.

Second, a Centrist presence in the Senate is likely to encourage a few defections among sitting senators. If there were a bloc of four or five Centrists in the Senate in 2012, Olympia Snowe might have left the Republican Party to become a Centrist rather than quitting the Senate in disgust. The Centrist Party is a logical home for incumbent senators exhausted by partisanship or facing electoral challenges from extremists in their own party.

Let’s Make Things Better

This is not going to happen on its own. Everyday people — the same folks who lament the sad state of politics at a backyard barbecue — have to be excited by a better alternative. And then we all have to do something about it.

None of this will be easy. The same entrenched political operators who are steering our country in a ruinous direction will spend literally billions of dollars to protect their interests. The more formidable impediment is our own inertia. We all tend to be risk averse and unimaginative when it comes to change. There are a hundred reasons why a Centrist Party might fail, just as there are always reasons to be skeptical of any new business or art form or scientific discovery.

The Centrist Party will work if we make it work. Never in the history of human civilization has it been easier to build a movement.

You can go to http://www.centristproject.org and join the movement.
You can visit The Centrist Project page on Facebook.
You can follow the Centrist Project on Twitter @CentProj.

The revolutionaries who believed that America should be independent from Britain had to print handbills, give speeches in taverns, and ride for days over muddy roads to mobilize their fellow citizens. We have the luxury of reaching millions of supporters in a fraction of the time it took George Washington to ride on horseback from Mt. Vernon to Philadelphia. There is no excuse for not trying to make things better.

If you think the American political system is broken, then you ought to do something about it. When your grandchildren ask you about the early-twenty-first century — about the growing debt and climate change and rise of political extremism — are you going to explain how you sat in an armchair and complained a lot? Or are you going to be able to tell your grandchildren that you were a founding member of the Centrist Party?

In the words of Victor Hugo, nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

The time for this idea has come. There is a better alternative to our broken system, and it can work. The Centrist ideology makes sense. The strategy does too. The American political system has reinvented itself in the past. We can do it again. We need an insurgency of the rational: a generation of Americans who are fed up with the current political system, who believe we can do better, and most important, who are ready to do something about it.

Are you one of those people?


[1] Even if the Senate were more lopsided, say, fifty-eight Democrats, three Centrists, and thirty-nine Republicans, the Centrist votes would determine whether the minority party could filibuster or not.


Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox

Charles Wheelan is the author of the best-selling Naked Statistics and Naked Economics and is a former correspondent for The Economist. He teaches public policy and economics at Dartmouth College and lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his family.


A vision―and detailed road map to power―for a new party that will champion America’s rational center.

The Centrist Manifesto has helped me understand the ‎root causes of political gridlock and why it has only gotten worse. The book also puts forth a bold new idea for how to change this.” — Michael Porter, Fortune

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